x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Saudi Arabia's dilemma: what if Ben Ali warrant arrives

There is anger in Saudi Arabia at the refuge given to Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, but although international arrest warrants have been issued, Tunisia has not yet formally asked for the extradition of its deposed president.

Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and his wife, Leila, during the 2009 election campaign near Tunis.
Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and his wife, Leila, during the 2009 election campaign near Tunis.

RIYADH // When it was disclosed two weeks ago that Tunisia's former president, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, had arrived with his family in Saudi Arabia, many Saudis were not happy that he had been given refuge in their country.

"We have everything to lose and nothing to gain by accepting him in Saudi Arabia," a Riyadh businessman, Turki Faisal al Rasheed, wrote in an e-mail. "What will be the Saudi position when we receive a court order from the Tunis government to deliver back Ben Ali in Tunis?"

That moment came closer when Tunisia announced on Wednesday that it had issued an international arrest warrant through Interpol for Mr Ben Ali and six family members. They are wanted for alleged theft of public funds and currency violations.

A press release on Interpol's website confirms that its office in Tunis issued a global alert via its international network seeking the location and arrest of Mr Ben Ali.

However, the release notes that the alert was issued "without the involvement" of Interpol's General Secretariat, and that it would be up to Tunisian authorities to "forward any formal request for extradition via diplomatic channels".

So far, Riyadh has not received an extradition request, according to a source who requested anonymity. If it does in the future, it is unlikely to turn over Mr Ben Ali, given the close ties between his government and the Saudi government in the past, several Saudi attorneys said.

"I think they will discreetly ask him to find a different place to live and then say it's not our problem anymore," said one Jeddah attorney, Bassim Ali.

Mr Ben Ali, like other deposed leaders given sanctuary here, including Uganda's Idi Amin and Pakistan's Nawaz Sharif, is forbidden to engage in political activities or meet the media.

The decision to take him in was unpopular among both reform-minded progressives and religious conservatives because the Tunisian leader was seen as repressing both currents when in power.

After his arrival, the royal court sought to mollify its critics, saying in a statement that Mr Ben Ali was received because of "the exceptional situation that the people of Tunisia are facing".

It added that Saudi Arabia gives "its full backing for the people of Tunisia [and] hopes for greater co-operation between Tunisians so they can surmount this difficult phase in their history".

Meanwhile, all eyes in the kingdom are on Egypt, though with different hopes for the eventual outcome. Many young Saudis are sympathetic to the Egyptian people, judging from the traffic on Twitter.

But other Saudis are fearful of an Egypt that could spiral out of control and face an uncertain future. Such concerns were reflected in a conversation that took place between King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz and Mr Mubarak early yesterday, according to the state news agency, SPA.

The Saudi monarch, who is in Morocco recovering from back surgery, called the Egyptian leader to express his support. King Abdullah condemned "intruders" he said were "tampering with Egypt's security and stability … in the name of freedom of expression", SPA added.

Saudi Arabia, the king said, "stands with all its means with the government and people of Egypt".

Mr Mubarak assured King Abdullah that "the situation is stable [in Egypt] … and what the world has seen is nothing more than an attempt by some ... suspicious groups which do not want stability and security for Egyptians", the news agency said.

Events closer to home, however, are preoccupying many people in Jeddah, Saudi's second largest city, where Wednesday's floods killed 10 people, caused extensive damage and left thousands of homes without electricity, according to Saudi newspapers. Three others are missing.

The flooding was caused by insufficient capacity in Jeddah's drainage system, a problem the government had promised to fix after devastating floods in November 2009 that left 120 dead.

Angry about the failure to solve the problem, about 50 Saudis marched down a major street after Friday prayers shouting complaints. They were quickly stopped by police, who arrested dozens of them, according to news agency reports.